Switzerland, in the eyes of many, is characterized by stability, provisions for direct democracy and a neutral foreign policy. Beneath this facade however, there is widespread inequality and significant discontent within the Swiss society.
Peoples Dispatch spoke with Alexander Eniline, member of the Executive Committee of the Swiss Party of Labour, regarding his party’s position on various aspects of Swiss politics and the challenges faced by the party in advancing workers’ rights in the country. The Swiss Party of Labour is a communist party founded in 1944. Although Switzerland is not in the EU, the party is associated with the European United Left–Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament.
Peoples Dispatch: What is the position of the Swiss Party of Labour regarding the ongoing “magic formula”, the power-sharing agreement between the four coalition parties that form the Federal Council? How effective is this system in representing and addressing the interests of the common people of Switzerland?
Alexander Eniline: The goal of this de facto coalition, formed by the four major parties of Switzerland, was never achieved. It does not represent or address the interests of the common people but avoids the existence of a real opposition for the sake of political stability. From that point of view, this system is very effective.
Switzerland has benefited from the nearly perfect political stability since World War II. However, this stability rests on a culture of compromise between the ruling parties instead of a real ideological opposition. This stability and practice of consensus implies a strong conservative hegemony. It guarantees that nothing changes too much.
Participation in the Federal Council on these conditions contributed strongly to the total integration of the Socialist Party into the existing system. It implied a de facto renunciation of any real social change projects for the sake of reaching a “compromise” with the right-wing parties. The integration of the Socialist party within the centrist consensus provided the Swiss bourgeoisie the opportunity to avoid any radical reforms after 1945. Now, when the far right Swiss People’s Party (UDC / SVP) has broken the logic of this compromise (continuing anyway to participate in the Federal Council), the Swiss Socialist Party (SP) continues to play the game. This has weakened the necessary resistance against neo-liberal counter-reforms. Apologists of the “magic formula” system claim that it is nearly perfect. However, while there are some good aspects, this apparent “harmony” and “consensus” hides the high inequality within Swiss society that is continually rising.
Organizations that do not want to enter the logic of consensus are delegitimized and presented as “not-Swiss” by the bourgeois media. This makes it difficult for them to exist politically. Our party rejects the logic of the centrist consensus and has always carried the goal of representing the real opposition to the system from the position of the working classes, who have been abandoned by the Socialist party. Unfortunately, the system of the “magic formula” is very strong and we have not yet succeeded in challenging the hegemony of the de facto ruling coalition.
PD: What is your take on the Swiss policy of neutrality in international relations and agreements? In your opinion, in the current context of globalization, how neutral should Switzerland be in global affairs? What are your recommendations on this issue?
AE: There has always been a lot of hypocrisy behind the official neutrality of Switzerland. During the Cold War, Switzerland was clearly a part of the western capitalist and imperialist bloc, despite its official neutrality. This so-called neutrality has often been a pretext to maintain good relations with authoritarian regimes, such as the military dictatorships in Latin America. Switzerland also did not join the international boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa until the end. Nevertheless, our party usually supported Swiss neutrality as a lesser evil than openly siding with the USA and becoming a member of NATO.
The official policy of neutrality allows Swiss diplomats to adopt more independent positions in certain cases. It also grants some credibility to Switzerland in playing the role of an independent and neutral intermediary between two conflicting countries. It may sometimes positively contribute to peaceful co-existence in the world, although Swiss authorities are not always neutral in such situations.
We consider that things have become much worse after Ignazio Cassis was elected to the Federal council and inherited the department of foreign affairs. Even though his predecessor Didier Burkhalter was also a member of the same right-wing Liberal-radical party, he managed to preserve some independence, dignity and neutrality for Swiss diplomacy. Cassis, on the other hand, has made a de facto break with neutrality for a barely hidden alignment with the USA and Israel. He had even called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East as part of the problem because it kept the dispossessed Palestinians believing that they could one day return home. Such statements are a clear negation of international law.
Immediately after being elected, Cassis applied the illegal US sanctions against Venezuela and cut Swiss aid to Cuba, even refusing to meet the Cuban ambassador. We consider this policy to be unacceptable and a shame for Switzerland. We are in favor of a diplomacy based on real neutrality that promotes respect for international law, people’s right to self-determination, peace and cooperation with respect to every state’s sovereignty.
PD: What is the position of the party towards the European Union? How do you view the rise of the far-right in EU countries?
AE: Our party is strongly against the integration of Switzerland into the European Union. We consider the EU as an imperialist and neo-liberal construction, built to exclusively serve the interests of large European corporations. The EU is undemocratic in its very essence and shaped in a way that makes it nearly impossible to modify the nature of that structure. It is led largely by not-elected bureaucrats who cooperate directly with big lobbies without being any democratic control.
This is perfectly logical as the EU was built by the capitalist elites of Europe to counter the influence of communist parties after World War II. It is designed to impose neo-liberal and reactionary policies upon the people which are difficult to implement at national level. The bourgeoisie, as the main apologists for the EU, painted it as a project of peace, cooperation and civilization. They promoted a pro-European ideology which remained quite influential for a very long time, even among the left. However, this ideology saw a quick decline after the systemic capitalist crisis in 2007. At that time, the EU implemented very harsh social cuts and massively dismantled workers rights, all with the excuse of “save the Euro”. This made the EU appear for what it always was, a fundamentally undemocratic, neo-liberal and imperial superstructure, created to break the people for the sake of big corporations. Policies after the economic crisis were imposed with a particular violence and arrogance, especially in Greece.
The rise of the far-right is also linked to the growing hostility of the European people towards the EU. The far-right parties exploit the wrath among the common people and try to channelize their justified dissatisfaction in a reactionary and xenophobic direction. That makes these parties very dangerous. While our country is not a member of the EU and the probability of joining is nearly nonexistent, what concerns Switzerland directly is the close linkages with the EU due to the existence of several bilateral agreements that are intended towards adapting Swiss legislation to match the EU legal norms. These agreements are very useful for Swiss corporations but lead to negative consequences for democracy and workers’ rights. Nowadays, the Federal Council is discussing whether to sign an “institutional agreement” with the EU that would lead to a quasi-automatic transposition of EU norms into Swiss legislation, covering many fields. Most of the bourgeois parties have not clearly stated if they are for or against this proposal before the federal elections scheduled on October 20. Our party is against the “institutional agreement” and in favor of renegotiating the bilateral agreements in the interests of the working classes.
PD: What is the status of the rights of workers, women and youth in the country? What are the major initiatives of the party towards that front? Could you explain the role of the party in the ongoing agitations for climate justice?
AE: Switzerland has always been a very liberal country, with few rights for the workers and a limited social security system. The centrist consensus between the Socialist party and social-democratic trade unions with the bourgeoisie led to the avoidance of important systemic reforms. For many years, the Swiss bourgeoisie was able to buy peace in the society with good wages and nearly non-existent unemployment, although only for those who carried a Swiss nationality. The compromise was made possible through the fierce exploitation of foreign workers, who have virtually no rights. On the other hand, an enormous corpus of money coming in from all over the world, whether derived through corrupt or illegal activities, is white-washed by the government.
However, now this compromise is over. Unemployment has grown and Swiss capitalists don’t see any necessity to negotiate with trade unions after the fall of the Soviet Union. This has led to a reduction in wages and the degradation of the condition of the workers. In fact, Switzerland has very few laws protecting workers, with no guaranteed minimum wage. The priority given to collective conventions between trade unions and capitalists was offered as a pretext to bypass such a legislation. However, almost half of the Swiss workers are unhappy about these collective conventions nowadays as they almost never address the question of wages.
This situation has led to a crisis with respect to the model of class collaboration that was the ideology of the Swiss trade unionist bureaucracy. It has resulted in a revival of class struggle. Our party tries to participate in the trade unionists’ fight to promote a clear perspective of class struggle. Concerning women’s rights, while there is a law on equality, it is not always practically applied as the mechanisms provided for its implementation are insufficient. This led to a massive women’s strike on June 14. While the struggle had a huge impact, practical changes are still lacking.
The youth movement for climate justice is also very impressive and shows growing political consciousness among the young generation, which is very inspiring for the future. Young members of our party actively participate in this movement and promote the idea that is impossible to solve the climate issues under capitalism, which require a systemic change.
PD: What are the mechanisms put in place by the party to work in a country with different linguistic and cultural traditions? Please explain the party structure and its mass organisations?
AE: Switzerland is a country where federalism has deep and ancient roots. The Swiss Labour Party has adapted its functioning to this federalist reality. Local organizations are present in every canton where our party exists. With nine cantons covered so far, the party displays substantial organizational and political autonomy. Big cantonal organizations are also subdivided into local units at the communal level. At the national level, the Swiss Labour Party is led by a Central committee, an Executive committee, and a Chairman, presently Gavriel Pinson from the Vaud canton.
This kind of federalism within the party is viewed positively because it provides appropriate representation to local issues and realities in a complex country with four official languages and diverse cultural and historical legacies. The negative aspect is that the cantonal organizations generally concentrate on local political issues and problems, sometimes losing a national and international perspective. It also weakens the authority of the Central Committee and the Executive Committee, despite efforts to strengthen them. In certain instances, it may lead to a lack of ideological and strategic unity within the party.
It is also the case that this kind of structure is better suited for an electoral fight by using the tools of direct democracy instead of organizing the workers at the workplace. Direct democracy is, in our opinion, a very important democratic realization. However, the bourgeois parties have been adept at exploiting this system for a long time. So, we have some victories, but also many defeats in terms of people’s votes. Unfortunately, our party has been able to create really well functioning organizations only in Geneva. We also possess a youth organization which, although founded only a few years ago, is quickly growing.
We are, in fact, a small party of about 1’000 members and to have mass organizations is currently beyond our possibilities. However, in the mid-forties, our party created AVIVO, a mass organization of retired people, in the context of a mass struggle for the creation of a universal system for retirement pensions, which did not exist in Switzerland before. AVIVO remains a big organization to this day, where our party has some influence still.
PD: How do you place the Swiss Party of Labour in the current political scenario in the country? What are the challenges faced by the party in advancing working class interests in a country with a peculiar political dynamic, with provisions for direct democracy at one end and a stagnant political coalition of elites at the other end?
AE: The Swiss Party of Labour was founded in 1944 with the aim of becoming the great party of the Swiss working class and to regenerate the workers movement, weakened by the social-democratic hegemony and a culture of class-collaboration. Our goal is to organize the Swiss working people on the basis of a class struggle, towards social and democratic progress and toward socialism. However, despite initial successes in some parts of Switzerland, our party was never able to achieve this goal. The Socialist party and the social-democratic trade-unionist bureaucracy managed to hold the leadership of Swiss workers movement. This led to the progressive weakening of our party and resulted in the hegemony of the ideology of the so-called Swiss consensus, which remains very powerful even today.
The nineties were also a difficult period for our party, as for most of the communist parties, at least in Europe. But we think that the situation is changing. The Swiss political model of consensus is in a state of crisis and does not satisfy the people. Switzerland is touched by the capitalist crisis and the banks are not in a good position due to hostile measures taken by the US government. The deteriorating condition of the workers and the revival of class struggle has created the necessity for a political organization of the working classes. This role cannot be fulfilled by the Socialist party any more.
The movement for climate has also shown a growing consciousness in the young generation and that we can not continue as before and that a radical change is needed. This situation creates new perspectives for our party. The challenges remain important and these new perspectives will only create a new and more promising climate for our struggle. Many things remain to be accomplished to bring about a real change in Switzerland.